Sports writer and columnist Marla Ridenour has been with the Akron Beacon Journal for 23 years

After 23 years as a sportswriter and columnist at the Akron Beacon Journal and more than 40 years covering everything from pro to high school sports in Ohio, Marla Ridenour is stepping down from everyday life. Ridenour recently announced that she had accepted a takeover by the newspaper.

Ridenour said the “24/7 digital world” kept her working until 6 a.m. many days, and she said she was torn because she genuinely enjoys being on the Cavs beat.

“I love the joy they have for the game. And it’s really kind of energized me over the past few years. but [it’s] only the constant physical and mental strain. You are a writer, you are an editor [and] You’re a digital genius on the publishing side,” she said.

She said what she will miss most is the trip to cover the NFL Combine, which takes place in Indianapolis every February. This is where potential NFL prospects come to show potential teams their skills, meet coaches and speak to the media.

“I like interviewing the guys alone, assessing them, [learning] what drives them and find a guy I like and follow him for the rest of his career.”

A trailblazer

Ridenour has been covering the NFL — specifically the Browns — since 1981, when she became the first female sportswriter to cover the team, while working for the Dayton Daily News. That was before the NFL mandated equal access to locker rooms.

She remembers well that first season when Sam Rutigliano was head coach and there was a training camp at Kent State University.

“He calls me into that tiny little office over there and says Art Modell has decided that he’s fine with me mentoring the team and coming into the dressing room. But Sam put on this whole kind of to-do list of what he expected. He prefaced it with the fact that “I expect you to behave as I would expect my daughter to behave when you’re in the dressing room.” And that included, “I want you to yell at women in the dressing room as soon as you walk in the door.” So I did that faithfully as long as Sam was the coach.”

And she says she had to navigate that environment carefully.

“I learned how to scan the top of the dressing room. I would look at you from the nose up. I would scan. I could kind of scan the room and do my best not to see anything.”

“I don’t know if I even realized how big it was to be the first woman in the Browns dressing room back then.”

Marla Ridenour

Another memory from that time stood out.

“My first game was a Pro Football Hall of Fame game in Canton. The Browns’ locker room was in the gym, and they had hung a clothesline across the gym with these sheets so that their locker area was closed off from where I was. I don’t know if I even realized how important it was to be the first woman in the Browns dressing room back then.”

Ridenour said storytelling has always been her focus – talking to players and getting them to open up.

“I’ve always tried to make my style more like a conversation than an inquisition. And I always wanted to ask for personal nuggets. I’ve always been more concerned with the personal than the X’s and O’s.”

Remembering Buckeye Bebe

One of her favorite stories, which she wrote in the Akron Beacon Journal, wasn’t about an athlete. It was about an Akron woman who went by the name “Buckeye Bebe.”

“She loved Jim Tressel when he got this [head football coaching] Work in the state of Ohio. She was a Buckeye fanatic. They were preparing to play Michigan. And she decides to text Tressel and say, “Be careful with the Statue of Liberty piece, because the Wolverines have used that to hurt the Buckeyes in the past.” So he gets this note. He decided to add it to the Buckeyes’ roster. It’s a close game and Antonio Pittman rushes for 26 yards in a key game in the fourth quarter and the Buckeyes win. And in his post-game press conference, Tressel talks about that note from that lady from Akron, Bebe.

Ridenour said she tracked Bebe down and the two became friends. And Ridenour saw an opportunity for Bebe to meet Tressel at an annual event at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.

“I’ll put her next to me at the media table and when he leaves, I’ll introduce her. She had just turned 80 and on the way back in the car she said, ‘That was better than my 80th birthday celebrations.’ So that was something really special and I felt like it embodied what I was about. Tressel came to her funeral service. That was big.”

Marla cavs.jpg
Marla Ridenour was a longtime cavs beat reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal.

The joy of seeing your team win

Another highlight was the Cavs winning the NBA championship in 2016. Specifically, the celebration parade through downtown Cleveland. She was one of the few journalists allowed to walk behind the convertible that LeBron James was driving.

“I just felt like that was the culmination of everything you wanted to cover. And you want to cover a championship if you dedicate your life to the Cleveland sport. And you’re right there just to see how crazy everyone was, hanging out of parking garages and climbing light poles and street signs. And I mean, that was the most upsetting event I’ve ever experienced.”

And she got tears in her eyes as she thought about the moment.

“I think it’s a bit sad because yes I’ll be able to tell stories but you probably won’t be in those celebrating positions. I doubt I’ll be that close and almost a part of it. I will definitely miss that.”

share a secret

In March, Ridenour made national headlines when she wrote a column in the Akron Beacon Journal in which she revealed she was a victim of sexual assault while studying in Kentucky. She wrote that memories of her rape “flooded back” when the Browns signed quarterback Deshaun Watson. Watson faced dozens of lawsuits from Texas women who claimed Watson sexually assaulted them during massage therapy appointments. He has settled most of the lawsuits and has not been criminally charged.

Ridenour’s announcement that she was leaving the Beacon came weeks before Watson was due to return to play for the Browns after an 11-game suspension on December 4.

She said that wasn’t part of her decision.

“But I guess part of me wondered if I had some kind of reaction or flashback or triggers or something from seeing him on a daily basis?”

She explained why she wrote the column.

“My platform was never meant to grow and reach as many people as it does now. I wanted to help people who were going through the same thing I was when they found out Watson was coming. I was outraged before they even made the deal because they spoke to him.”

Ridenour said she kept the rape a secret from almost everyone in her life for many years. Sharing it with the world was empowering.

“Every time the story comes up on Google for someone, I’ve been getting emails, you know, quite a few lately. I didn’t even think about the silence part and the keeping the secret part for so long. And that resonated with a lot of people, even though they haven’t gone through anything like this before.”

Ridenour’s legacy and future

Ridenour reflected on the legacy she hopes to leave in the Akron Beacon Journal.

“My fearlessness. I mean, not just roughly [Watson], but my willingness to criticize when necessary and to be the defender of the fans. And it’s funny because when I got into this business I wasn’t that outgoing. It’s almost amazing that this is me. The fact that I could become a columnist and then somehow step up to have that voice in that role that I never imagined for myself. But I mean, I felt like I was meant to be. I tried.”

But she wants to make it clear that she is not retiring.

“I still want to write people’s stories. I’m hoping there are some trails in Northeast Ohio that will allow me to do that. Everyday life is just too much, but I still have stories to tell and I will try to find as many ways as possible to do it.”


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